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An End to the Paper Chase

By Michelle Pearson

University record-keeping has reached a crossroads. Once upon a time, entire basements of campus buildings were dedicated to the storage of hardcopy paper records. Today, record archivists, working hand in hand with administrators, are spending a great deal of time making the switch to virtual recordkeeping and rewriting records policy to ensure the integrity, longevity, and security of confidential university records.

There are many issues to take into consideration when rewriting policy for an electronic record-keeping system — dealing with interactive Web pages, determining what is an official record copy of an electronic record and how many copies of that record need to be retained, what format to preserve the record in, how long a record will be retained, and who will pay for the preservation of documents. In addition, archival departments must also determine who has the right to access the information and how it will be distributed and/or reused.

Admittedly, it is a field with many questions that still need to be answered. “I believe the organizations that can answer those questions and preserve efficiency and creativity will be the most competitive in the coming century,” says Rob Spindler, university archivist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Spindler also points out that the costs of maintaining electronic records for the long term are as yet unknown. “We know some things about short-term electronic retention in terms of hard-drive space used, but the real costs for long-term retention will be the costs of migration from old to new technologies and the costs of repairing or manually replacing data that has been corrupted or lost in the migration process,” he says.

Spindler believes that the issue of security of electronic records, and the entire issue of electronic preservation, for that matter, is a challenge that can’t be implemented by any one group. “The solutions to electronic preservation will be found by interdisciplinary teams who bring the perspectives of the service provider, the technology professional, the archivist or records manager, the librarian, the attorney, and the document user to the table.”

Indiana University and the University of Idaho (PDF document) have extensive policies regarding their electronic records management online. Stanford University has an impressive list of links to online papers dedicated to the subject of electronic records management and policy.